Even libertarians don't want private roads

Can you ever have free-market highways?

Just missing the UK news agenda, the Atlantic has a post up on road tolls and private highways. In a reversal of the norm for discussions of high degrees of privatisation, its merely a theoritical concern for Americans, but has deeply practical relevence for Brits.

Timothy B. Lee writes:

While I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of privately-managed roads, I've become convinced that the broader vision of "free-market roads" is a conceptual confusion. In the abstract, the idea of competing, privately-owned roads has a lot of appeal. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Roads are deeply intertwined with governments. They always have been and as far as I can see they always will be. This means that they'll never be truly private in the sense that other private companies like restaurants or shoe factors can be.

Assembling the land needed for a long-distance road is prohibitively expensive without government assistance. Unsurprisingly, private roads almost never come into existence without extensive government assistance. And that means that the profitability of a "private" road depends crucially on how many competing roads the government allows to exist.

Lee is no anti-privatisation zealot, either. An adjunct scholar with the high-libertarian Cato Institute, he's exactly the sort of person who would love to support the government taking a back seat on provision of transportation.

It is noteable that the government's plans don't involve large scale private road-building, but the lesser challenge of handing over the maintanence and development of existing roads to private investors on extremely long-term leases. If the private companies do so purely through existing funding, then the issue is merely one of comparative efficiency of the public and private sector, and the privatisation is just a showy, irreversible outsourcing. But if, as Cameron suggested, they are allowed to charge tolls on new capacity, then that carries additional risks.

As Lee argues, because any large scale road-building (which surely includes things like adding extra lanes to motorways, cited by Cameron as something which could be funded through tolls) requires massive public support, through use of eminent domain to assemble the land and no-compete clauses to prevent revenue streams from drying up, tolls on previously public roads represent, at least in part, a tax on mobility.

There is one key difference between the American and British contexts, though; in the UK, competition – of a sort – exists. Freight is frequently moved through the rail network as well as the roads, and shipping is far more useful in a country which is never further than 70 miles from the sea. Of course, true competition means avoiding "too-big-to-fail" scenarios; for now, the idea of reposessed roads might be a bit much to handle.

Future of British roads? A Bolivian highway. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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